Monday, 28 September 2009

Suspects


When I watched an episode of Wallander, ‘The Castle Ruins’, the other day, I mused again on the tricky question of how many suspects a whodunit requires. It’s a question that occupies my mind quite a bit when writing a mystery, but it is also something that matters to me as a reader or viewer.

In this episode, the Swedish cop was investigating the murder of a scruffy chap who had just withdrawn a huge sum of money from his bank account. The victim had made his loot from selling land to be turned into a luxurious beach development. But not all the residents appreciated the unlovely bloke, especially since he hung around, along with his dogs, instead of doing the decent thing and leaving them to their upwardly mobile existences.

Further murders quickly occurred, and unfortunately they served only to confirm my initial suspicion about the culprit’s identity. But this was due to no great brilliance on my part – very few other viable suspects were left.

This is the challenge, then, for the writer. To include enough potential killers in the story to retain an element of surprise, but not so many that it becomes impossible to give them clearly differentiated characters. Agatha Christie had lots of suspects in many of her books, but Cards on the Table shows that she could still ring the changes cleverly even when she confined herself to a handful. This is a topic that fascinates me, and I’m sure that it provokes a range of opinions. What is the secret – if any – to getting the right number of suspects in a mystery?

17 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Interesting post! I don't know the exact number of suspects that's "right," but you have a well-taken point that too many takes away from a story while too few makes it too easy to figure out whodunit. When I write, there are usually four or five suspects, and I try to keep them viable until my sleuth uncovers evidence that narrows the field. I don't think there's a magic formula, thought.

Maxine said...

Intriguing question. Sometimes only one suspect is sufficient - eg Good Night My Darling by Inger Frimansson or The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr. (This can sometimes be used to provide a twist, of course!). Sometimes there can be one really obvious suspect who actually does turn out to be the criminal, and yet this is fine if the book is done well. (I feel I cannot give an example as it would be, in itself, a spoiler!). As you say, some books have many suspects and I do think that in some books, this can be a weakness. The reader is treated to descriptions of, say, six possible perps and one is only conscious of the mechanical, unconvincing nature of it. I can't answer you in a general sense, therefore, but I can certainly say that I've read superb books when you know at the outset who committed the crime and even why, where the pleasure of the book is in the details. I've also read superb books where you really have no idea who is going to be the criminal(s), and it all comes as a big shock at some point near the end. I suppose it all boils down to the writer and what he/she is trying to achieve.
I believe that Agatha Christie liked to play with the genre and have different "formulae" in different books. The 10-novel Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo, similarly, takes a different type of "crime novel plot" in each, and one views these "cliches" through the eyes of an increasingly jaded and cynical team of policemen (and occasinally women). All highly enjoyable - as are the more "serious" novels which aren't so deliberately, almost academically, structured.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I struggle with this, too. I usually have five suspects--hopefully enough to keep the killer a surprise (although I always kill off a suspect at some point in my books) but not so many that the reader can't keep up with them all.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Nik said...

It depends on whether it's a whodunit or a psychological crime novel. In the Barbara Vine books, we may know whodunit but we still want to know if he/she gets away with it. Incidentally, I read somewhere that Ruth Rendell sometimes writes a novel to the end then flips the characters so it becomes a surprise to her whodunit... You could also adopt my method for my first crime thriller and have more than one murder and more than one perp...

Eric Mayer said...

Indeed this is a fascinating question and it can be particularly difficult to supply sufficient suspects in something shorter than a novel, such as a short story or a television episode. I recall once picking the killer out in a short story because the character seemed to have no real reason to have shown up in the story unless he were there to be the killer.

I think often we are distracted from the fact that there are only a few suspects. The detective may be searching for an unknown killer whereas the killer is actually a character to whom we have been introduced. Or else the emphasis is on proving that the death was not the suicide it appeared to be, or on why anyonee would murder the victim, or else the crime seems to have been impossible. The solution to the problem will point to one of a limited number of suspects but the reader's attention may be somewhat diverted from that. Of course, a book that uses such devices is probably not properly classified asa whodunit.

And as Maxine points out sometimes there only needs to be one suspect, (as with Austin Freeman's famous inverted mysteries!) although, again, I don't now that would properly be called a whodunit

Dorte H said...

I think two or three might be enough in a TV series, but in a novel four or five may be necessary to provide enough red herrings.

Of course writers should try something new now and then, but please don´t break the rule that the murderer is someone we have been introduced to in the first half of the book.

R. T. said...

Everyone to begin with--except the sleuth and his or her colleagues (although the latter might be exceptions to the exception)--is fair-game as a suspect. Readers will make their own selection of the prime suspect from among all the options, hoping to be one step ahead of the sleuth. Agatha Christie, for example, had no problems stage managing whole herds of swinish suspects. Then, Poirot or Marple would come along and sort things out, often at the end with remarkable flourish. So, in my humble opinion, there is no limit. The patience of the reader is not as important as the skill of the author (and, of course, the sleuth).

Martin Edwards said...

I really appreciate these comments, and I think that they each deserve a reply. But it is late, and I have an early start tomorrow, so I will keep my comments fairly brief!

Margot, I agree there isn't a formula, but it's useful to hear that you favour 4 or 5 suspects. I'm sure many other writers would take a similar approach.

Martin Edwards said...

Good points, Maxine. An interesting case study is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I suggest. Lots of suspects in theory, but (I thought) only one or two likely ones.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Elizabeth. Another vote for five suspects! Killing one (or even two) off is, I agree, a useful option!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Nik. I've heard that story about Rendell too. It wouldn't work for me as a method, but it's served her pretty well...

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent points, Eric. The suspect who has no real reason to be in the story was a common feature of the brilliant and complex early episodes of a great tv series, 'Taggart'.

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, I strongly agree with the rule, or principle, or whatever we might call it. The culprit who only turns up to meet us at a late stage in the narrative is an especially irksome character!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi R.T. Murder is Easy is a good example of Christie's skill at manipulating a large cast of characters. Death Comes as the End is also a decent example, though not quite such a fine book, despite its merits and unusual setting.

Minnie said...

Depends on whether it's a 'who-dunnit' or a 'why-dunnit', doesn't it? And, if the former, how the plot is structured - you'd have to introduce all the suspects more or less at the beginning, and the crimesolvers would have to have one or two insiders as support, I suppose ...

Minnie said...

PS Me again, sorry - late as ever (own fault!). The excellent Peter Robinson, in 'All the Colours of Darkness', twists the two strands of who-dunnit and why- with masterly skill. It gradually transpires that the murder was caused or inspired by a third party - Iago-style (ndeed, the local theatre is mounting a production of 'Othello'). Very cleverly done: a compelling read.

Martin Edwards said...

I haven't read that novel, Minnie, but you make it sound irresistible. I shall hunt it out.